Food writer and $20 Diner

The bare block walls at Little Coco’s are a reminder of the shell that the owners found when they first entered the space. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

The old Rib Pit Lounge in Petworth didn’t look like much when Jackie Greenbaum and Gordon Banks got their hands on it. A long-dormant club connected to a barbecue joint next door — the lounge may have been a gentlemen’s club, offering a smoking-hot experience of a different sort — the one-story space was gutted. All Greenbaum and Banks found inside were a giant safe and a barely functional toilet.

“It was a shell in the truest sense of the word,” Greenbaum says.

The owners sank more money than they care to admit into renovating and expanding the space into Little Coco’s, an 80-plus-seat, two-story spot that feels like an aging anarchist’s take on an Italian trattoria. Iconic boomer-era images — Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” cover, E.T. and Elliott silhouetted against the moon on their bike, Mr. Spock offering the Vulcan salute — have been reimagined in paintings that replace certain elements with pizza. The prism on the Floyd album? It’s now a slice.

Red, marquee-style letters have been affixed to the cinder block wall behind the bar, serving up a phrase that may not have the happy-pothead appeal of the “awesome” sign at Rose’s Luxury but still provides a glimpse into the soul of Little Coco’s. The letters read: “Hot Pizza & Cold Beer,” as if this rollicking American trattoria wants to conceal its more enterprising nature behind a bro-worthy slogan.

Named after chef Adam Harvey’s wife, Eva Cocozzella, Little Coco’s does have bigger ambitions than it first lets on. Start with Harvey himself, a Montgomery County native whose kitchen prepares everything in-house, “other than the cheese,” he likes to quip. This includes pastas, breads and a pork-shoulder porchetta slow-cooked in a sous-vide water bath. Then turn to co-owner Banks, the spirits specialist, who has cobbled together an impressive collection of amari, those bittersweet Italian liqueurs, including a line of vintage bottles from the mid-20th century. If these delights sound beyond the $20 Diner’s standard budget, they are. I won’t apologize for it. Life calls for occasional splurges.

The bar team at Little Coco’s knows how to bring out the best in its bitter liqueurs. The Nasty Woman, a negroni variation, surrounds Campari and huckleberry gin with citrus, both sweet and tart, for a bracing start to the meal. The negroni bianco betrays the drink’s Italian roots with a pour of suze, a French liqueur with the bitter bite of gentian root, and pairs the aperitif with two gins, including one distilled with lemons. I’m not sure the cocktail technically qualifies as a negroni bianco, but I’m positive I’ll have another. The drink is bright and silky, with a honeyed sweetness on the back end.

I caught Little Coco’s as Harvey was shifting from his winter to spring menus, a common problem at this time of year. It’s just as well that you missed the chef’s porchetta entree, a plate that felt more worked over than Mickey Rourke’s face. Harvey plated his rolled pork shoulder with smoked mozzarella polenta, broccoli rabe and a citrusy gremolata — elements that did more to distract from the central protein than complement it. (Harvey says the preparation will resurface as a family-style plate.)


A table set at Little Coco’s with, clockwise from lower left, panfried branzino, cacio e pepe, brandade fritters and tuna carpaccio. (Dayna Smith/For the Washington Post)

Harvey’s Achilles’ heel with Italian cooking is his tendency to seek complexity over simplicity, perhaps a result of his years working under Bryan Voltaggio at Volt. Exhibit A is Harvey’s cacio e pepe: He sprinkles ­lemon-parsley bread crumbs on the plate of peppery pasta, adding acid and crunch, both of which hijack the dish and take it places I don’t care to go. I feel the need to paraphrase Ned Beatty from “Network”: “You have meddled with the primal forces of pasta, Mr. Harvey!” The chef’s chopped salad challenges diners with (mostly) a pile of shredded radicchio, whose feral bitterness is not tamed by the cured guanciale or the semi-sharp Gorgonzola, as you might predict. The salty cheese also shoulders too much of the burden to season the salad.

But ambition is much like drinking: You don’t know when you’ve gone too far until you’re there. Harvey’s enterprise, I suspect, will serve him well as he continues to search for those sweet spots where zeal meets flavor. There are many such spots already on his menu, starting with the tuna carpaccio, in which a translucent, ruby­colored sheet of raw yellowfin tuna comes topped with dollops of lemon-dill aioli, crispy lengths of prosciutto, onion jam and sheer ringlets of radish. The appetizer’s stained-glass beauty compares favorably to the late Michel Richard’s signature sashimi mosaic at Citronelle. Its playful flavor and textural combinations, however, are all Harvey’s. (Alas, the chef has just changed the preparation to a tuna variation on Venetian beef carpaccio.)

The chef puts just as much thought into his pizza dough, whose flavors are developed with two 24-hour rises — and with Salad Days, a triple-hopped American saison from Pale Fire Brewing. The crisp-and-chewy base serves as a fine canvas for Harvey’s pizzas, at least when the kitchen doesn’t underbake them, as it did with my Aloha, a pale-faced pie with sections of pineapple compressed with chile flakes and chile oil. They were equally anemic.

By contrast, the ’Nduja Really Want to Hurt Me pizza — the madness of Boy George reduced to spicy spreadable sausage — burns hot and loud, the caramelized onions and ricotta almost helpless against the blaze. Heat seekers will call the pie their Daddy. The Pig Destroyer, a pork-heavy pizza named for a local grindcore band, proves the most harmonious pie of the bunch. Go figure.

The fried pizza, a cripsy coil of dough stuffed with Margherita fillings, and the tiramisu chocolate globe hog all the attention at Little Coco’s, in part because their presentations fulfill our constant craving for plates that we can showboat on social media. But neither pizza nor dessert is easy to execute with any consistency: I had to hunt down ingredients in the far corners of both dishes to compose bites with any balance. Frankly, I prefer Harvey’s squid-ink spaghetti with lump crab and ’nduja bread crumbs or his butter-poached chicken breast on Parmesan polenta with amaro truffle cream, which strut their inventiveness in ways that serve the dish, not necessarily a diner’s Instagram account.

If you go
Little Coco’s

3907 14th St. NW. 202-853-9889. littlecocos.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday.

Nearest Metro: Georgia Ave-Petworth, with a 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $7 to $24 for appetizers and snacks; $10 to $32 for pizza, pasta and entrees.